Teaching Whitney to cook

Environmental awareness can be learned in the kitchen

  • Smoky Southwest Corn Chowder

 

"Seriously?" I asked. "You don't know how to cook? Not at all?"

We were standing in a rustic cabin an hour from Moab, futzing with the tiny propane-powered stove. Whitney, a blonde, wide-eyed and enthusiastic 20-something vegetarian and recent environmental studies graduate, was part of our university trip to this remote field station. On a hike that morning, she and I spent the ascent kvetching about all things environmental, and then used our descent to talk about world travel plans.

I assumed that her obvious environmental savvy included cooking savvy. She eagerly pitched in with dinner preparations, but she held the knife awkwardly, and stared dumbfounded at an asparagus spear, not knowing how to proceed. The second night, as she gobbled the roasted vegetables and quinoa with gusto, she shyly inquired, "Do you think I could learn to make this?" Her mom cooked a little, she said, but she had never learned.

By the time we returned to Salt Lake, I had offered and she had accepted a cooking lesson. We set a date, and I e-mailed her recipes.

Our first lesson in Whitney's kitchen included Southwest corn chowder, a tomato-based spaghetti sauce with pasta, and green salad with homemade vinaigrette. She peeled onions, potatoes and jicama for the soup and practiced a dice, a mince and a julienne. For the spaghetti sauce, I showed her how to press a garlic clove with the flat side of a knife to slip the papery skin. She loved how the mushrooms darkened and shrank in the sauté pan and how red wine evaporated. "Man, that is so amazing," she said. We sat down to eat and clinked our wine glasses, the sink piled high in our wake, and she proclaimed each dish the best she'd ever had.

My soup recipe said "1/4 cup cilantro, chopped," and Whitney had bought a jar of dried cilantro, unaware there was fresh cilantro in the produce aisle. She said it took forever to find someone to show her the jicama. So we took a field trip to the grocery store for lots of pointing and identifying. "I had no idea this was even here!" she squealed over bins of grains, rices and spices in the bulk natural foods section.

Cooking with Whitney made me appreciate how many cooking skills -- large and small -- I take for granted. How to hold a knife. How to flick your wrist to beat butter, sugar and egg. The difference between simmer and boil, whip and fold.

Cookbooks can only furnish the language; it's like thinking you can fly-fish or rock-climb after reading a description. Cooking, like casting, is a bodily knowledge, and sensations and movements over time become memories stored in fingers, elbows and body. Whitney had none of these bodily lessons.

Cooking skills have eroded steadily since the 1960s, and those least likely to cook are small households and 20-somethings, like Whitney and her roommate. And when environmental enthusiasts like Whitney don't know how to cook, it's difficult to talk about eating locally and sustainably, about food miles and food chains, about factory and family farming.

The second cooking lesson included Pad Thai, an enchilada casserole, and key lime pie. She impressed her coworkers with leftover pie and made the Pad Thai again for her boyfriend. We took a field trip to a kitchen store for some basic utensils and two crucial pans.

The third lesson was two salads, minted Greek couscous and Asian greens, and a glazed orange bread. She intently pulsed the blade to my food processor, mincing the raisins, orange rinds and walnuts. "I might need to get one of these," she said. The couscous salad became her new "best dish ever." By the fourth lesson, even though we set off the smoke alarm making roasted vegetables over instant polenta, and roasted beet salad with goat cheese and pine nuts, her cooking confidence was surging.

Occasionally, I get a call from Whitney in the grocery store or her kitchen, with a question about how, or where, or what went wrong. After the key lime pie triumph, she asked for more pie recipes and made a blueberry pie with a custard. It refused to firm up in the oven. "It's the oven," we concluded and laughed, having learned from the orange bread that its heat wasn't accurate. Last week, she e-mailed me: "Do you have a recipe for carrot cake? It's Jeff's birthday and I want to make him one." A confident protégé had emerged.

The saying goes, if you give a man a fish, you have fed him for today. But teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime. Well, teach a young woman -- or man -- to cook, and you've provided a lifeline to physical health and well-being, and reason to care about fresh food and the land on which it's grown.

In my work, I try to engage college students in environmental issues, and I research environmental attitude and behavior change. I write letters and speak up, take the bus, live small, turn things down and off, and I cook. But surrounded by blown oil wells, obscene consumerism and inaction on climate change, I don't often feel I'm doing much good. The most rewarding, pleasurable and modest-yet-profound environmental action I've taken in a very long time was teaching Whitney to cook.

Julia Corbett is a professor of communication and environmental studies at the University of Utah. She is finishing a memoir, Seven Summers: Homesteading in the New West, and a cookbook, Soups & Salads for a Sustainable World.

High Country News Classifieds
  • TROUT UNLIMITED NORTH IDAHO FIELD COORDINATOR
    The field coordinator will work with TU members, other fishing organizations, community leaders, businesses and elected officials to build support for actions necessary to recover...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • 40-ACRE LAMBORN MOUNTAIN RETREAT, PAONIA, CO
    One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • RECRUITMENT & HIRING MANAGER WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ATTORNEY (NM) AND POLICY ASSOCIATE/ANALYST (AZ & NV)
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAWKWATCH INTERNATIONAL
    We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER OF 2019
    Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • DONOR RELATIONS MANAGER
    This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • STREAMFLOW RESTORATION IMPLEMENTATION LEAD (ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER 4)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • SENIOR STORMWATER ENGINEER (ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER 5)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • MAJOR GIFT OFFICER
    University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • MONTANA LAND STEWARD
    The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • 3 POSITIONS: ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, AND FOREST PROGRAMS ASSOCIATE
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • CENTER FOR COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION DIRECTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
    The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER/DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.